Ion Luca Caragiale Caragiale, Ion Luca - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ion Luca Caragiale 1852-1912

Romanian playwright, short story writer, translator, and journalist.

Caragiale was one of Romania's preeminent playwrights and among the most important literary figures in his country's history. Though he earned his living variously as a journalist, translator, and prose writer, he is best known for plays such as O scrisoare pierduta (1884; The Lost Letter), in which he satirized the vanity and smugness of the bourgeoisie. Caragiale enjoyed a few minor successes during his lifetime, but his work was often plagued by government censorship and even legal woes, not to mention a generally tepid response from the public. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, critics had recognized him as a writer of great insight.

Biographical Information

Caragiale came from a family well acquainted with the stage: his father, a lawyer, had once worked as an actor, and two uncles remained in that profession. Born in the tiny village of Haimanale, Caragiale attended school in the larger nearby city of Ploesti, and at age sixteen moved to Bucharest. From 1868 to 1870, he studied under his uncle Costache, an established actor, and in 1870 went to work with the other uncle as a prompter at the National Theatre. Also in that year, his father died, leaving Caragiale to take care of his mother and sister. During the next three decades, Caragiale—of whom it was said that "he made more reputation than money"—struggled to support his family, which grew in number when he married. Meanwhile Caragiale worked at a variety of jobs, including as a tutor and a journalist. His first literary successes came in 1873 with the publication of humorous stories in the journal Ghîmpele, followed by his well-received translation of a collection of poetry by Dominique-Alexandre Parodi in 1876. In 1879, when he was twenty-seven, Caragiale saw the production of his first play, O noapte furtunoasa sau numaral 9 (A Stormy Night, or Number 9), which met with minor success. Five years later, he reached the peak of his career with the enthusiastic popular and critical reaction to The Lost Letter. However, his foray into tragedy with Napasta (1890) was not well-received, and Caragiale even had to go to court over the work because a critic accused him of plagiarism. His spotty resumé as a breadwinner grew in tandem with his frustrated career as a playwright: Caragiale held another string of jobs, including one as proprietor of a beer garden, between 1881 and 1904. In the latter year, however, he received an inheritance and moved to Berlin. There he spent the remaining eight years of his life, during which time he wrote a number of short stories and sketches but no further dramatic works.

Major Works

Caragiale's reputation rests chiefly on four of his eight plays, all published between 1879 and 1885. In A Stormy Night, or Number 9, the city father Dumitrache has en-trusted his right-hand man Chiriac to spy on his wife, who he is certain is having an affair. She is, as the audience discovers—only her lover is Chiriac himself. Meanwhile the wife's sister's lover goes to visit the sister, but be-cause of an upside-down nine (which looks like a six) on the house number, winds up inside Dumitrache's house instead. He nearly gets himself killed by both Dumitrache and Chiriac before the sister identifies him, and her explanation convinces Dumitrache that his wife has remained faithful to him after all. The Lost Letter, generally considered Caragiale's greatest work, also makes use of romantic intrigue with a political hue. Stepan Tipatescu, a candidate for office in a small-town election, discovers that his opponent has obtained an old love letter that he wrote to another man's wife. In vain Tipatescu attempts to persuade the opponent, Catavencu, to give up the letter. But when the government announces its support for a third candidate, Tipatescu withdraws himself from the race and puts his support behind Catavencu. In the meantime, Catavencu manages to lose the letter, which passes through the hands of the town drunk to Zoe, the woman to whom Tipatescu had originally written the letter. By the end of the play, the opponents are reconciled, and the government's candidate wins. Caragiale's other two significant works, Conul Leonida fata cu reactiunea (1880; Mr. Leonida and the Reactionaries) and D'ale Carnavalului (1885; Carnival Scenes), follow the pattern established by A Stormy Night and The Lost Letter, biting political satire in the case of the first, and romantic intrigue in the latter case.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

O noapte furtunoasa sau numaral 9 [A Stormy Night, or Number 9] (drama) 1879

Conul Leonida fata cu reactiunea [Mr. Leonida and the Reactionaries] (drama) 1880 [first publication]

O scrisoare pierduta [The Lost Letter] (drama) 1884

D'ale Carnavalului [Carnival Scenes] (drama) 1885

Napasta (drama) 1890

Pacat (short stories) 1892

Note si schite (short stories) 1892

Moftul român (short stories) 1893

Sketches and Stories (short stories and sketches) 1979

E. D. Tappe (essay date 1952)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Centenary of I. L. Caragiale," in The American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. XI, 1952, pp. 66-76.

[In the following essay, Tappe presents an overview of Caragiale's career, highlighting his most prominent works and the chief characteristics of his writing.]

When Rumanians are asked, "Are there any great comic writers in Rumanian literature?" there can be no question that most of them think first of Caragiale. If I were asked, "Who is the most original of Rumanian writers?" I should be tempted to answer likewise: "Caragiale!" Perhaps what I should really mean is that his writing is exceptionally vivid and vital, so that through him Rumania, and especially Bucharest, of the late nineteenth century lives in the imagination with an intensity and individuality such as that, for example, with which another great comic writer, Mark Twain, has endowed the Mississippi Valley of a slightly earlier period.

Ion Luca Caragiale was born on January 29, 1852, in a Wallachian village not far from Ploesti. His father was one of three brothers who were all connected with the theater, but had left the stage years before, divorcing his actress wife and marrying a country woman. While I. L. Caragiale was still a small boy, the family moved into Ploesti, and it was there that he went to school.

In 1868 he left for Bucharest to study declamation with his uncle, Iorgu Caragiale, and to be prompter to his company. After his father's death in 1872, he combined the job of prompter and copyist with that of proofreader for two newspapers. Thus he was initiated in his teens into a life of poverty and hard work. In 1877 he began to write for the Conservative paper Timpul, of which his friend, the poet Eminescu, had just become editor. For a while, in 1878, Caragiale, too, was on its editorial staff. But it was the production of his verse translation (from the French) of Alexandre Parodi's classical tragedy, Rome Conquered, which first attracted attention to his literary gifts. That imposing figure, Titu Maiorescu, professor, critic, and politician, approved of him and introduced him to the literary circle Junimea ("Youth"), over which he presided at Jassy. No doubt it was Maiorescu's influence which later procured him an inspectorship of schools (1881-84).

Caragiale's period of productivity as a playwright lasted a little over ten years. The comedy, O Noapte Furtunoasa (A Stormy Night) was first performed in 1879; O Scrisoare Pierduta (A Lost Letter) marked the zenith in 1884; and the period closed with the drama Napasta (False Witness) in 1890. For a few months in 1888 Caragiale was Director-General of the National Theater, but was not a success. It was then that he married. The financial responsibilities of married life made his position—and he was never economical—still more difficult than before; an irregular income from journalism was not enough. Nor did his sarcasm and irritability help matters; to offense thus given may be attributed to a very large extent not only the refusal of the Rumanian Academy on two occasions to award him a prize for his writings, but also his inability to get a good job and keep it.

From 1889 to 1904 his struggles for a decent livelihood were continuously frustrated. Among the expedients he tried was running a tavern, and at another time, a station buffet. Only for two years (1899-1901) did he hold a minor post as a civil servant. To add to his troubles he became involved in a lawsuit against an unscrupulous critic who accused him of plagiarism. From this period of fifteen years date most of his stories and sketches.

In 1904 his luck turned. He obtained a share of a long-disputed inheritance. At once he removed with his family to Berlin, where there were greater opportunities for cultural activities, and especially for going to concerts. Though he made occasional trips to Rumania, he continued to reside in Berlin for the rest of his life. He died unexpectedly on the night of June 9, 1912.

Most of Caragiale's best-known work consists of short sketches, two or three pages long. These are normally scenes of contemporary Rumanian life, sometimes in the capital, sometimes in the provinces. Very often they are about clerks and their wives, the life not of the more fashionable parts of Bucharest, but of the mahala (the "suburb," if only one could divest that word of its specific associations in modern English). Sometimes they are about Caragiale's own world of journalism, about his acquaintances, about the people he meets in trains. He is continually making fun of pretentious ideas voiced by fools or humbugs; of the petty ambitions and quarrels of provincial life; of the folly of women who spoil their children or their lapdogs; of the absurdities of journalism; and so on. Sometimes the fun consists as much in parody as in ridiculous situations. For example, there is the delightful series of "Telegrams" about a scandalous incident in a provincial town, which starts with the prefect of the local police smacking the face of an ex-M.P. at the Central Café. Here a great deal of the fun lies in the combination of the style of official telegrams with the melodramatic exaggeration of the whole affair by the senders. Another parody of official jargon is a series of letters about the supply of firewood for a provincial girls' school. Incidentally, Caragiale published literary parodies in prose and verse. His facility in this line is illustrated by the following story. On one occasion, in a literary circle, the poet Iosif asked him how it was that Bolintineanu had written verse so prolifically. Caragiale told him to take a piece of paper, and then dictated impromptu a parody of Bolintineanu's verse, thirty-six lines long. "You see," said he, "it's not difficult. The fact is, Bolintineanu could write a poem in twenty-five minutes, and assuming that he only worked six hours, that means sixteen a day."

How much as a rule in these sketches the effect is made by dialogue, and how comparatively little by narrative and description! That is very characteristic of Caragiale—who was a dramatist and came of a theatrical family—and it contributes very largely to the liveliness and concreteness of his work. The habit of driving home his points by repeating key phrases, and especially of sharpening the outline of his characters by giving them clichés which they constantly repeat, serves him as well in his sketches as in his comedies. Just as in the comedy A Lost Letter Trahanache, the chairman of many committees, cannot be thought of apart from his mannerism, "Just a moment!" (Ai putintica rabdare!), so in the sketch "O Lacuna" ("A Gap") Mache is forever identified with his "Stop it, Lache!" (Lasa, Lache!), and Lache with his "You're dreadful, old boy, really you are!" (Esti teribil, monser, parol!).

Such sketches as "Petitie" ("An Application") are practically dramatic dialogues. In fact, some of them have actually been put on the stage with some success. Their resemblance to the mimes of Hellenistic literature in the third century B.C. has been noted by Zarifopol, the editor of the definitive edition of Caragiale's works; he compares them to the Mimes of Herondas. And surely Caragiale might well have written the Fifteenth Idyll of Theocritus, The Women at the Festival. Indeed, his sketch "At Peles" is strongly akin to it in spirit and observation: Madam Piscopescu is at her toilet before lunching with the King and Queen, her mother assists while her husband waits impatiently outside.

Generally speaking, Caragiale's sketches are comic, while his stories are serious. But naturally there are no-table exceptions to this. The sketch "O Reparatie" ("An Act of Redress") describes a visit to a little monastery in the hills. A bear has been robbing the apple tree. The monks' servant, a dumb, half-witted, epileptic gipsy, had tried to stop him the previous day, but the bear had knocked him flat. Now the gipsy lies in wait, and as the bear mounts the stile, the gipsy cracks it over the head with his staff. Both fall dead, the bear with its head broken, the gipsy overstrained by his effort. The monastery bell, tolling for vespers, reëchoes his knell among the wooded hills. Here Caragiale, who normally was preoccupied with human idiosyncrasies and not notably fond of nature, contrives to give his little sketch of a thousand words an extraordinary atmospheric charm. Conversely, in "Doua Loturi" ("Two Lottery Prizes") he writes a story of ten thousand words on a theme contrived to display the irony of fate in a comic light. Lefter Popescu, a minor civil servant, has mislaid two lottery tickets, each of which has gained the first prize in its own lottery. Under the strain of this situation, all the worst side of him comes to light. He harries his wife, he bullies an oldclothes woman because he fancies that a coat which his wife let her have, had the tickets in one of its pockets, he stays away from the office to carry on the hunt. At last, when he is compelled to go back to work under threat of dismissal, he finds the tickets there, and in triumph sends in his resignation. When he reaches the bank to draw the prize money, the banker points out that he has in one lottery the ticket which won first prize in the other—and vice versa. "If I were one of those self-respecting and respected authors," continues Caragiale, "I should finish my tale thus." And there follows a mock-pathetic description of Madam Popescu years later as an old nun and Popescu himself as a little old man murmuring, "Vice-versa! … Yes, vice-versa!" "But," says Caragiale, "as I am not one of those authors, I prefer to tell you frankly: after the row at the bank, I don't know what happened to my hero and Madam Popescu." This ending has been criticized as an artistic irrelevancy which should have been pruned away. But there is a good deal to be said for the gently frivolous conclusion to a story which was otherwise on the point of getting itself taken too seriously.

Caragiale reaches the highest level of his powers in the story "Kir Ianulea," one of his latest works. Here he has taken Machiavelli's The Marriage of Belphegor, which itself, we are told, can be traced back to ancient India, and has expanded it into a nouvelle. What in Machiavelli's version is not much more than a study becomes in Caragiale's hands a finished painting. He sets the tale in eighteenth century Wallachia under the Fanariot regime, a very happy choice because he could depict a Levantine scene most convincingly. Aghiuta, an imp, is sent upon earth by the King of Hell to find out the truth about women, since all the men who arrive in Hell lay the blame for their perdition upon their womenfolk. He is under orders to marry and live with his wife for ten years. He puts on the likeness of a man in his prime, and choosing Bucharest for his activities, settles down there in the guise of a Greek merchant with the name of Kir Ianulea. He marries a young woman named Acrivita, who is a beauty, but proves to be a shrew. Not only does she make his life intolerable with her tantrums; she also ruins him with her extravagance. On the verge of bankruptcy he runs away, and being hidden from his creditors by a certain Negoita, rewards him as follows. Whenever Negoita hears of a woman being possessed by the devil, he may be sure that it is Kir Ianulea, or rather Aghiuta, who has entered into her. Aghiuta will depart from her at Negoita's bidding, and the latter will naturally receive a suitable reward from her grateful relations. At his first case Negoita asks a fairly modest reward. The spirit reproaches him and tells him that he will only have one more chance, but that the patient will be the wife of the governor of Craiova. Of course, Negoita's fortune is made. Unluckily, Aghiuta proceeds later to enter into the daughter of the reigning Prince, who summons Negoita to cure her. Negoita, though well aware that the spirit will be angry this time, cannot refuse to go. He is greeted with fury by Aghiuta, speaking through the...

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Ileana Popovici (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Visions of 'A Lost Letter'," in Romanian Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1972, pp. 103-108.

[In the following essay, Popovici compares two productions of A Lost Letter, the standard rendering at the I. L. Caragiale National Theatre in Bucharest and an alternative version mounted at the Lucia Sturdza-Bulandra Theatre in 1971.]

Every culture possesses in its classical zone, icy cold peaks to which pilgrimages are undertaken, and burning hot sources, permanently connected with present-day circumstances by all manners of bridges and channels. For Romania, A Lost Letter, a comedy of manners by Ion Luca Caragiale—a playwright and prose writer, a...

(The entire section is 1551 words.)

Valentin Silvestru (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Studies and Essays: Caragiale's Day," in Romanian Review, Vol. 41, No. 6, 1987, pp. 55-67.

[In the following essay, Silvestru discusses critical response to Caragiale's works during his lifetime and traces the growing acceptance of his works among inter-national and Romanian audiences of the twentieth century.]

The national and international area of spreading of I. L. Caragiale's work, the amount of studies devoted to him and the fact that his plays are untiringly present in the theatres, have all imposed the currency of a new term: CARAGIALEOLOGY. A literary-dramatical society of applied studies, set up in Craiova will probably contribute also to establishing...

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Florin Manolache (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Between Minitext and Maxitext," in Romanian Review, Vol. 41, No. 6, 1987, pp. 67-77.

[In the following essay, Manolache examines Caragiale's narrative style.]

"… take me for a sea-trip, timely and wisely. "

I. L. Caragiale, "A Few Opinions" (1896)

The note which Caragiale made on the manuscript of a story ("N.B.: Great attention should be paid to whatever may be suppressed—that is as much as possible") was for a long time considered a key to his writing. Actually to our surprise we discover "two Caragiales" at this level too, for one of the many instances of the Caragiale...

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Al. Calinescu (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Caragiale and 'Rhetoric'," in Romanian Review, Vol. 41, No. 6, 1987, pp. 78-88.

[In the following essay, Calinescu discusses the theoretical principles underlying Caragiale's drama and fiction.]

Let us begin by resuming one of Caragiale's well-known texts:

Oh, sacred rhetorics!

It is most piously that I remember the highly elevated Cours francais de rhétorique, the first udder from which I sucked the milk of literary science.

A wonderful book! And what joy I experienced in learning that the principles and method of my very old French course, in its n'th edition, this...

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Valentin F. Mihaescu (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Game of Love or of Chance?," in Romanian Review, Vol. 41, No. 6, 1987, pp. 89-95.

[In the following essay, Mihaescu analyzes love relationships and the impact of chance in A Stormy Night.]

"RICA VENTURIANO": Oh, I am sorry, I apologize, but neither I am to blame, nor you, or Madam Zita either: The blame lies with the number plate on the gate … Madam Zita had written to me she lived at number 9 … I saw number 9 on the gate and I entered {He talks sotto voce with Zita, Veta and Chiriac).

DUMITRACHE TITIRCA (speaking to Nae Ipingescu): That's right. It's the builder who did it to me: he plastered the...

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Stefan Cazimir (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Classicism and Realism," in Romanian Review, Vol. 41, No. 6, 1987, pp. 95-104.

[In the following essay, Cazimir discusses Caragiale's reliance on classical literary principles and the realistic presentation of character in such works as A Stormy Night and A Lost Letter.]

The attempt to define by a terse formula the essence of Caragiale's view of man invariably resorts, in the most penetrating exegesis, to invoking classicism as the proximate genus and realism as the specific difference. Yet another survey of his œuvre confirms this opinion, supporting it with several considerations on Caragiale's way of conceiving of the situation of types in space and...

(The entire section is 4602 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Barbuta, Margareta. "The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of I. L. Caragiale/Le Cinquantenaire de la Mort de I. L. Caragiale." Le Théatre dans le Monde/World Theatre XI, No. 4 (Winter 1962-63): 363-69.

Reviews events in Romania and elsewhere commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Caragiaie's death; in English and French, with photographs.

Feraru, Leon. "Opere, Tomul III, Reminiscente si notite critice, Editie îngrijita de Paul Zarifopol." The Romanic Review XXV, No. 1 (January-March 1934): 70.

A favorable review of Paul Zarifopol's third volume (in Romanian) of an edition of works by Caragiale.


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